|Yoetzet Halacha, Dr. Deena Zimmerman|
For those who don’t know – a Yoetzet (singular for Yoatzot) is a halachic adviser specially trained in Hilchos Niddah (commonly referred to as the laws of family purity). These are an intricate set of laws involving a woman’s menstrual cycle and when intimacy with her husband is or isn’t permissible.
Breifly (and perhaps to over- simplify) it is severe violation of Halacha for a man to have sexual relations with a menstruating woman. The violation applies to both the man and the woman. That prohibition remains in place until the menstrual cycle ends. When no more blood is detected and after a short waiting period the woman immerses in a Mikva, and sexual relations between a husband and wife may resume until the next menstrual cycle begins.
Although this sounds pretty straight forward and uncomplicated (I almost hate to use the overused cliché – but here goes…) the devil is in the details. These laws are very complex and require a lot of knowledge to be properly observed. I am not going to go in to any of the details. There are volumes upon volumes of Halachic written material that deal with this issue. Which are certainly beyond the scope of this post.
Although most observant men and women learn the basics prior to marriage, situations often arise requiring more than basic knowledge. These situations require a Shaila (a Halachic question) to be asked of an expert in these laws - a Posek that has studied them extensively and had Shimush – a kind of internship with an experienced Posek in the field.
The problem is that that sex is obviously an embarrassing subject to talk about with your rabbi. Especially for a woman . It cannot be easy for a woman to ask a man a question about the most intimate part of her life. But that is the way it has been done throughout the ages. And it has worked. Up to a point.
But as I have said in the past (and as Shoshana Keats Jaskoll said so much more eloquently than I ever have) embarrassment leads to not asking a Shaila at all in many cases. That results in 2 possible outcomes – neither of which are good. In some cases a couple may think a problem is no big deal and violate these laws. But in a far greater number of cases, refraining unnecessarily creates its own set of Halachic problems. It can also cause serious problems in the relationship – and even prevent conception.
This is where Yoatzot Halacha come in. They have been trained in these laws exclusively and are prepared to answer many common questions that come up. The more difficult questions are referred to a Posek that has the knowledge and the years of experience to answer them properly. The advantages of this system are evident in the statistics cited by Mrs. Jaskoll in her Cross-Currents article:
To illustrate: in one particular community, the rabbi had been hearing 5-6 questions on taharat hamishpacha over the course of a month; when a yoetzet joined that same community, she received 5-6 taharat hamishpacha questions per DAY. The number of questions skyrocketed when the voice on the other end of the line belonged to a yoetzet…
The yoetzet hotline for halachic questions fields between 30 and 40 questions each night, not including calls made directly to independent or community yoatzot. Approximately 16,000 questions have been catalogued on Nishmat’s website, which gets an average of 300 hits per day. Indeed, it is likely the largest repository of halachic responsa on taharat hamishpacha in the world.
These statistics speak for themselves. And yet there has been no endorsement of this innovation by any rabbinic leader. Certainly not in the Charedi world, but even in much of the Modern Orthodox world.
I have never understood this opposition. Except to say that it might be rooted in the fear that the Yoatzot Halacha program is rooted in 21st century feminism. Or that they fear the slippery slope. While I’m sure that the first concern may be true in some instances. I don’t think this is what motivates most of the women who seek this knowledge. They are not rabbis and don’t claim to be. They are women who are aware of the need and responded. A need that is mainstream and not based on the spirit of the times that fuels Open Orthodoxy. Nor do I know of a single Yoetzet that has slid down any kind of slippery slope. To the best of my knowledge none of them have decided to become rabbis. They continue to be Yoatzot and fill a need.
As mentioned Shoshana Jaskoll has written a powerful argument in favor of Yoatzot Halacha in Cross-Currents, I could not agree with her more. That article includes a thoughtful rebuttal by opponents. It is well worth the read.
What is significant about this is that it was published on a Charedi website. Although Cross-Currents is moderate, I do not recall them ever publishing a view that was in opposition to the broad consensus of Charedi rabbinic leaders. They have done so here. I am also that are other Charedi rabbis (albeit moderate ones) that have changed their minds and are now aboard with this program.
For the record, I did not buy the opposition’s arguments. Their concerns which may or may not be legitimate, pale in comparison to the obvious benefits. Which are primarily enhanced observance of Hilchos Niddah.
Just to refute one of their objections. They seem to be saying that the expertise of a Rabbi who is steeped in these laws having studied them for many years is far more knowledgeable that any Yoetzet ever could be. We should therefore retain the old system and not worry about women being too embarrassed to ask them questions. Because it will be the husband doing the asking.
The problem is that it hasn’t worked to the extent that the Yoatzot program has. One can see that just by the statistics cited above. What about the greater expertise of the Posek? That is actually built into the program. These women are trained to ask them the more difficult questions.
What about the rabbinic opposition to this program? One of the primary arguments made against the innovation of female rabbis is that it is vehemently opposed by all rabbinic leaders of any stature in both Charedi and Modern Orhtodox circles. I am 100% convinced that they will never be accepted. I stand by that.
The opposition to Yoatzot on the other hand has not generated the kind of heat. They have not been ‘thrown out of Orhtodoxy’. In essesne they are tolerated to an extent even if they are opposed in principle.
Chicago has innovated a program of its own. Founded by the Rosh Kollel of the YU Kollel Torah MiTzion, a group of women have been trained to answer common Shailos on Hilchos Niddah and a hot-line has been created. They are not called Yoatzot in order to avoid the politics of the issue. Nor do they have the extensive training that Yoatzot do. But they essentially perform the same function. And they have a Charedi Posek they ask Shailos to. The Charedi rabbis in the city have not given their blessing. But they have not spoken out against it either. I’m sure it is because they see the value of it.(Not to mention that Charedi Posek that answers the more difficult questions.)
I don’t know if the rabbinic leaders that have opposed Yoatzot will ever come around with a more positive approach rather than a ‘look the other way’ approach. I hope they will. We’ll have to wait and see. But stranger things have happened.